THE UNPOPULAR ARTS IN AUSTRALIA
© Donald Richardson, 1999
The Australia Council for the Arts is currently searching its soul to see how it can better convince the Australian public of the value of the arts, but - is it asking the right questions? Is its inquiry likely to yield answers that can be acted upon, or will the exercise be just be another circular talk-fest?
The Council and the advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi (which it has commissioned to undertake the inquiry) are reflecting in public on whether the Council's definition of 'the arts' is too narrow. Perhaps widening it to include popular things, like strip-club dancers and Kylie Minogue CDs will make more of us like the arts.
But - is this the right approach? Will focusing on people (whether dancers, singers, painters or potters) yield positive results? Are the arts people, or are they things that people make or perform?
POPULAR ART AND HIGH ART
The work of painter Ken Done is often discussed in the context of 'popular' Vs 'high' art. Done has had a remarkably successful career in advertising and fabric-design but, in recent years, has again taken up 'fine-art' painting. Yet, focusing on him as a person rather than on what he produces means that he is practically ignored by the fine-art establishment of critics and galleries.
But, isn't Done the perfect instance of one person being able to be both an artist and not an artist at will? Is it not obvious that the product is what can be 'art' or not - not the person.
The history of the arts abounds with similar examples: painters who have to earn their livelihoods drawing newspaper adverts, opera composers who keep bread on the table by writing TV jingles, sculptors who mass-produce pottery to support their preferred work, novelists who read newspaper proofs at night and write by day. So - if Saatch and Saatchi are concentrating on people rather than what they make or do, are they wasting the Council's money?
It is true, as the new Managing Director of the Council, Jennifer Bott, says in the June issue of Alert (the Council's bulletin devoted to 'promoting the value of the arts') that many Australians are alienated from the arts. They think it is not for them - that entry to art galleries is only for the invited, that the theatre is only for the wealthy. They disdain the ABC's arts programmes as 'too difficult'. Classical music is not entertaining enough.
The Council deserves to be commended for undertaking this inquiry, but you can widen a definition to include anything and everything, and the danger here with the arts is dumbing-down or bowdlerization.
The Council must never forget the imperative of quality. (We remember with chagrin a government strategy to do away with state operas and save money by sending videotapes of Sydney performances to the states!)
Perhaps, rather than widening the definition of 'the arts', refining it/them would be more rewarding.
DEFINING THE ARTS
This is not say that - in spite of the Council's constituency - any theorist has yet actually defined 'the arts' in a way that has universal acceptance. But, it takes little reflection on the works of a Ravel, Cézanne or Eliot - as distinct from theoretical statements - to establish that artists in the modern period work on the principle of individual, free, self-referential (even self-indulgent) self-expression. This is the true essence of art as it has come to be in the twentieth century - in whatever medium. Further, it is no less than the paradigm for life itself in this modern world.
Not only has this state of affairs given creative people the right to work in this way, but - in a market economy - it has also given them the privilege of starving in garrets. Hence, the need for government patronage, such as that provided by the Council.
However, it must be obvious that very few things in the entire universe of what humans create, or have created, are actually 'art' in this restricted - although valid - sense. Most created things are made with a specific, practical function in mind. This includes buildings, furnishings and kitchen gadgets as well as books and magazines, vehicles and freeways, clothing and advertisements (however 'artistic' these may be) - in fact, most of what we encounter in everyday life. This functionality places them theoretically in the area of design, not art: they are all designed for a particular purpose.
ART AND DESIGN
Entertainment, too, comes into this category. What distinguishes it from art per se is that its function is to entertain. And, to do this, it must sell . So, it is the rare work of entertainment that is conceived - or, at least, produced - without consideration for its saleability. Books and pop CDs will only be published if a market can be guaranteed for them in advance. In the theatre, bums on seats is the bottom line.
This leads to the view that another thing the Council should question is its own structure. Why is the Design Board separated off from the arts boards? Don't designers work legitimately as colleagues of the artists in the theatre and dance, in the new media, in the community? And in all of the arts areas there are artists who work to design briefs in advertising and other aspects of the communications and entertainment media. In this guise, they are operating as designers, not artists per se.
The public hears very little about the Design Board. Does the current investigation cover this shadowy organisation as well as the arts boards?
THE 'ARTS INDUSTRY'
This brings up the matter of the so-called 'arts industry', a term used by the Council and much favoured by the present government. But, as the above will have established, there is absolutely no similarity between how true artists work and how and why industrialists produce goods. Whereas artists create disinterestedly, without thought for how their end-products might sell (although they hope they will!), no industrialist produces a single article unless and until he has carried out some sort of market-research to ensure an at least even chance of making a profit from the enterprise.
There is no such thing as an 'arts industry' - the can be no such thing - although there is an arts market. This is the realm of the theatrical agent and producer, the commercial gallery, the book publisher, the authors' agent and the recording and entertainment industries. Thus, entertainment may justly be called an 'industry' - but not the arts - and to conflate the two threatens the validity and integrity of the arts.
Practitioners of the arts surely need their marketers, just as the producers of any other product do, but the making of art must be distinguished from marketing it before we can intelligently promoted the arts to the Australian public. It is in the theatre arts that we see the subtlety and complexity of the relationship between the creator, the producer and the marketer of the arts. None of this is reflected in the present structure of the Australia Council.
Here, too, we see clearly a fact that the politically-correct are reluctant to admit - that there is a hierarchy in the arts. If we consider disco-dancing to be an art, does it have the same status as Swan Lake?
Those of us whose personal experience of the arts has graduated us from an early, easy appreciation of the Impressionists to Picasso and Duchamp or from The Beatles to Stravinsky or Philip Glass realize that we have gone through a process of positive personal development. It is not elitist to admit this, but a celebration of our humanity. The Council must recognize this hierarchy as a fact - must admit the inadmissible, say the un-sayable. It needs to recognize and promulgate that progression through the arts is a natural thing which all may share - and encourage them to do so.
'COMMUNITY ARTS' AND EDUCATION
While it seems logical that there should be separate administrative structures for the visual arts, music, theatre, literature, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and - perhaps - new media and dance, community arts is nothing more than a bureaucratic category of arts administrators. There are no arts that are practiced 'in the community' that are not already covered by other categories - theatre, music, visual, literature - so why have a separate board for 'community arts'?
While there is good reason for an administrative structure to assist in planning and running festivals and community events (which the Community and Cultural Development Board is), there is a danger that - as far as grants to practitioners are concerned - this board will only sponsor amateurism. This has happened with the Country Arts Trust in South Australia, where it is almost impossible for a professional artist to receive support for an activity unless it is at the instigation of a local - amateur - group, and professional input is often minimal or compromised.
If the reason for having a structure for community arts is to encourage the populace to appreciate and participate in the arts then, clearly, this board has failed in its purpose - otherwise, why have the current investigation?
What community arts should be about is educating the general public in the value of the arts. But, the current inquiry is unlikely to suggest a remedy because Saatchi and Saatchi have specifically rejected the education approach. In Alert 2 (June, 1999), they state that their purpose is not to educate, but to stimulate. This is a curious statement, for any effective education will stimulate in some sense, and stimulation alone (while it may work in advertising) only results in unthinking reflex actions - hardly what will truly promote the value of the arts in the community!
So, not only are Saatchi and Saatchi asking the wrong questions, but probably they are the wrong people to ask them.